Nosophobia is the extreme or irrational fear of developing a disease. This specific phobia is sometimes simply known as disease phobia.
You might also hear it referred to as medical students’ disease. This name stems from previous assumptions that nosophobia tends to mostly affect medical students surrounded by information about different diseases. But some 2014 evidence lends less support to this idea.
It’s common to feel some anxiety when serious health conditions spread through your community. But for people with nosophobia, this anxiety can be overwhelming, affecting their everyday life.
Read on to learn more about nosophobia, including common symptoms and how it compares to illness anxiety disorder, formerly known as hypochondria.
The main symptom of nosophobia is significant fear and anxiety around developing a disease, usually a well-known and potentially life-threatening one, such as cancer, heart disease, or HIV.
This worry tends to persist even after healthcare providers examine you. You might feel the urge to see your doctor frequently for exams or tests, even if they’ve already given you a clean bill of health.
This intense fear and anxiety can result in physical symptoms, including:
- increased pulse
- rapid breathing
- trouble sleeping
Nosophobia also involves avoidance. You may not want to know anything at all about the disease. Hearing about it in the news or from others may trigger distress. Or, you might avoid public transportation or spaces, such as grocery stores.
If you have a family history of a certain diseases, you might go out of your way to avoid all potential risk factors.
On the other hand, some people with nosophobia prefer to learn as much as they can about certain diseases. They might spend hours reading about the condition or monitoring the news for stories about potential outbreaks.
Nosophobia is often confused with hypochondria, which is now known as illness anxiety disorder. While nosophobia involves the fear of developing a specific disease, illness anxiety disorder involves more general worries about illness.
Someone with illness anxiety disorder might worry that minor symptoms, such as a sore throat or headache, are a sign of something serious. Someone with nosophobia might not have any physical symptoms but worry that they actually have (or are going to have) a specific, serious medical condition.
For example, someone with illness anxiety disorder might worry that their headache is a symptom of a brain tumor. Someone with nosophobia might constantly worry about developing a brain tumor, even if they don’t have any symptoms.
People with illness anxiety disorder are also more likely to reach out to loved ones or healthcare providers for reassurance. Someone with nosophobia may be more likely to avoid thinking about their health or the underlying disease they’re concerned about, though this isn’t always the case.
Several factors may contribute to nosophobia, and in many cases, there isn’t a clear underlying cause.
If someone close to you has a serious illness and has complications, you might worry that the same could happen to you. This is especially true if you’re taking care of that person.
Living through a disease outbreak can also contribute to nosophobia. In these cases, you might be inundated with news footage about the disease or constantly hear about it from friends or coworkers.
In recent years, experts have suggested that easy access to health information on the Internet may also play a role. You can find a detailed list of symptoms and complications associated with just about any diseases online.
This has become such a common cause of anxiety that there’s even a term for it — cyberchondria.
You might also be more likely to develop nosophobia if you already have anxiety or a family history of it.
Nosophoboia is typically diagnosed if worry and anxiety about developing a disease makes daily life difficult or has a negative impact on quality of life.
If you’re concerned that your anxiety about diseases might be a phobia, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. They can refer you to a specialist who has experience diagnosing and treating phobias.
If you’re experiencing distress that relates to fear of a disease, consider talking to a therapist. In therapy, you can begin addressing your fear and develop strategies to cope with it.
While specific phobias don’t always require treatment, nosophobia can involve a fear of going anywhere you might be exposed to a certain disease. This can make it difficult to work, go to school, or take care of other needs.
Therapy can be very helpful for specific phobias. The two main types of therapy used are exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
This approach exposes you to what you’re afraid of in the safe environment of therapy. Your therapist will start by helping you develop tools to deal with the anxiety and distress that comes up when you think about a disease, such as meditation or relaxation techniques.
Eventually, you’ll move on to confronting some of these fears, using the tools you’ve learned to help manage your anxiety.
This exposure might involve watching news stories about disease outbreaks, reading about different diseases, or spending time around people with the condition, if it isn’t contagious.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Another helpful therapy is CBT. Though your therapist may incorporate a level of exposure into therapy, CBT primarily focuses on teaching you to recognize and challenge irrational thoughts and fears.
When you begin to worry about the disease, you might stop and reconsider whether your thought is rational. Reframing irrational or distressing thoughts can help improve anxiety.
Another important aspect of therapy for nosophobia is helping reduce your need to seek reassurance that you don’t have a specific disease. A therapist can help you develop better coping tools you can rely on when you feel like seeking reassurance from others.
While there’s no medication that specifically treats specific phobias, certain drugs can reduce symptoms of fear and anxiety and may be helpful when used along with therapy.
A prescriber may prescribe beta blockers or benzodiazepines for short-term or occasional use:
- Beta blockers help decrease physical symptoms of anxiety. For example, they can help you maintain a steady heart rate and keep your blood pressure from rising.
- Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative that can help with anxiety symptoms. They can be addictive, so they’re not meant to be used for a long time.
Fearing disease is natural, especially with the all the information that’s now available about different diseases online.
If your concern about illness focuses on a specific disease and begins to affect your daily life, emotional health, or your ability to function as you usually would, consider reaching out your healthcare provider. Living with extreme fear isn’t easy, but phobias are very treatable.